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Health as if everybody counted blog

Life A.D. (After Drummond), Part 1

Posted by Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker is a clinical scientist at the Élisabeth Bruyère Research Institut
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on Monday, 20 February 2012
in CHNET-Works!

As Ontario-based readers will know, on February 15 the Government of Ontario released a far-reaching report on reorganizing public service provision in an era of austerity. The report was the work of a small commission chaired by Don Drummond, a former public servant in the federal Department of Finance and subsequently chief economist for TD Bank. The other commission members were the President of Laurentian University (base salary $304,647 in 2010); the Vice-President for Communications and Community Engagement of the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health (base salary $245,352 in 2010); and the dean of the business school at the University of Western Ontario (base salary $405,000 in 2010). These figures are matters of public record, as they should be, and are available under the Province of Ontario's salary disclosure legislation. The point is that all members of the commission were, to put it mildly, isolated from many of the influences that limit other Ontarians' ability to lead healthy lives.

The report proposed that public spending on health care – the largest item in Ontario's budget, as in that of other provinces – should grow by 2.5 percent annually over the next several years, as compared with the recent trend of 6 percent annual growth. Slower growth was recommended for public education; just 0.5 percent for "social programs"; and spending reductions of 2.4 percent annually in all other programs. However, the 'how to' rather than the 'how much' aspects of the report's recommendations may ultimately be most significant, if implemented.

The report has already generated a flood of commentary, to which I don't propose to add right now. I'll be posting a longer analysis after my presentation at Public Health Ontario's PHO Rounds on March 2, the last part of which will deal briefly with life A.D. (After Drummond). Meanwhile, the Wellesley Institute has commented on the report's neglect of broader social determinants of health that affect the prevalence of and prognosis for conditions like diabetes (the topic of one of my earlier postings). And the Toronto Star's Thomas Walkom pointed out the bias introduced by the government's instructions to the commission not to consider tax increases, at a time when the fiscal capacity of Canadian governments has been drastically reduced, while allowing it to consider user fees that will have a disproportionate impact on low- and middle-income households.

Walkom also pointed out the lack of attention to the employment impacts of a plan to take billions of dollars out of the Ontario economy by way of public spending cuts – indicative of a broader trend in which employment has all but vanished from the public policy agenda except when governments want to trot out the 'job creation' benefits of handouts to one or another corporate client. He predicts that implementation of the Drummond recommendation would lead to an Ontario unemployment rate of 11 percent by 2018, "even without another global crisis". Abundant evidence shows that not only unemployment rates but also the conditions of employment – full-time and secure versus precarious, casualized or entirely informal – and their effects on working conditions are key social determinants of health, so this is a point of some importance. (An aside to readers: would a future posting expanding on this evidence be of any interest?)

As pointed out by (among others) economist Erin Weir of the United Steelworkers, there is quite a bit in the report that those of us committed to social justice can support. There is also quite a bit that might be compatible with a "health in all policies" agenda, and with advancing health equity. Where will the public health community be as debates about the report continue in the coming weeks? How prominently, if at all, will population health and health equity figure in the discussions? Does the public health community, however defined, have an organizational platform capable of rapid, critical and effective response to events in the broader public policy environment? If not, it's high time we did.

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